Whither Catalonia?

The independence movement faces stiff opposition from Spain.

Unistas at a Barcelona pro-union street rally on October 29 (photo credit: JON IMMANUEL)
Unistas at a Barcelona pro-union street rally on October 29
(photo credit: JON IMMANUEL)
CATALANS have a way of turning national disasters into patriotic festivities. Count Wilfred the Hairy’s severe chest wound acquired while allegedly fighting Muslims in the late ninth century gave them their flag. A crushing defeat in the war of the Spanish succession in 1714 gave them their national day. And if Islamic terrorists had not bombed 10 trains entering Madrid’s central station in 2004, there may have been no Catalonian bid for independence today.
The saga has been gathering momentum for nearly seven years, igniting passions and ennui. An hour after Catalonia’s parliament declared unconditional independence and stood to sing the national hymn on October 27, a brooding man in a bookshop said, “It is a show put on by idiots.” Two days later, during a boisterous anti-independence rally in Barcelona, estimated as at least half a million, Ramon Rosso, a company economist, suggested the movement was in self-contradiction. “Perhaps what they want is virtual independence because they won’t get the real thing. They complain about Madrid taking their money but are happy to give it to Brussels instead. But they are too narrow-minded to see it.”
Right now, Catalonia is less independent than it was on October 26. Eight ministers obeyed a summons to come to Madrid and are in jail pending trial, while five others have turned themselves in to Belgian police, forcing the reluctant European Union to intervene after Madrid issued a warrant for their extradition. President Carles Puigdemont, a former journalist and mayor of Girona, may be tilting at windmills as he maintains hopes of winning EU support for Catalonia. To his constituents who remarked on his decision to flee, he observed that many persecuted Catalan leaders in the past have done so. One previous Catalonian president did – and became a national martyr.
Lluis Companys, a lawyer and the mayor of Barcelona, became president in 1934 of recently autonomous Catalonia, the most progressive regime in Spanish history. Unfortunately, Companys was sentenced to 30 years in prison for sedition when Conservatives returned to power, a fate Madrid has threatened to impose on Puigdemont. Released by the restored Popular Front in early 1936, civil war soon followed; and when Barcelona fell to Franco in 1939, Companys fled to Paris where the Gestapo tracked him down in 1940 and extradited him to Spain. There, after a summary trial, he refused a blindfold at the execution wall of Barcelona’s Montcluis Castle. His last words were “Per Catalunya!” (For Catalonia)
Unlike Puigdemont, he proclaimed a Catalan state only within the Spanish federal republic. Enemies as well as friends have compared Puigdemont with Companys, hinting that he should share the same fate.
So long as his cause remains nonviolent, and Spanish police overreact as they did in attempting to suppress the referendum on October 1, Puigdemont exudes confidence that Catalonian public opinion, which gave separatists 48 percent of the vote in 2015, will win the regional election which Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy has slated for December 21, the earliest possible date that could have been set. Puigdemont had refused to call one himself, arguing that the referendum was sufficient authorization for a declaration of independence. The election will, in effect, be a second referendum, authorized by Madrid. It is a gamble by both sides. But what if Puigdemont wins? Will Rajoy have legalized the right to independence?
One hears a lot about how Madrid cheats Catalonia of its hard-earned wealth, but impoverishment does not seem to have inspired the independence movement. Prosperous Girona, Puigdemont’s constituency, is a gastronomic mecca of designer shops. It boasts the world’s top Michelin-rated restaurant of 2013 (now in third place). Catalonia boasts more Michelin stars than any other population center of its size. It can absorb its economic issues with a pinch of salt.
Some 80 percent of Girona residents favor independence, estimates Jorde Font, a tourist information officer, mostly for other reasons. Here one is told how the Spanish Bourbon king Philip V destroyed Catalonian autonomy after it bet on the wrong side in the War of Spanish succession from 1702 to 1714. Yet on the very anniversary of that catastrophe, the unfortunate date of 9/11, Catalans celebrate their national day, the Diada de Catalunya. Abolished by Franco it was reinstated two years after the restoration of Catalonian autonomy in 1978. The date’s irony is heightened by the likelihood that the present surge of support for full independence owes something to Islamic terrorism. In 2004, the Madrid train bombings, which killed nearly 200 commuters a few days before a scheduled Spanish election, shredded the polling lead of the ruling conservative Popular Party (despite its support for the invasion of Iraq), and brought to power the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which favored greater Catalonian autonomy.
IN OPPOSITION, Rajoy’s Popular Party called on the constitutional court in Madrid to overturn the Statute of Autonomy, which the socialist government authorized in 2006 and Catalonia ratified. Four years later the court passed judgement. Leaving the statute mostly intact, it undermined judicial autonomy and ruled that its “references to Catalonia as a nation… have no legal effect.” It was a superfluous poke in the eye, which enraged Catalans, especially since Andalusia, whose inhabitants Catalans described as “illiterate…semi-savages,” George Orwell wrote in “Homage to Catalonia,” received more judicial independence.
Pro-independence rallies followed. One month later, the Catalan parliament banned bullfighting, claiming it was barbarian, though it was clear that it wanted to show that Catalans had more in common with humane European mores to the north than with bull-baiting Spanish machismo to the south.
Hesitant Conservative Catalan party leaders of the day felt obliged to embrace independence to outflank calls from the left. But, as fresh converts, they were not convincing. Puigdemont, an avid devotee of Catalan philology from his youth, had quixotically embraced independence as a journalist on a Catalan newspaper, long before becoming mayor of Girona. His time had come. He took office in January last year as the leader of the Convergence Party that he renamed the Catalan European Democratic Party.
Economics is an issue among Puigdemont’s more left-wing junior coalition partners. The ERC (Esquerra Republica Catalunya – Republican Left of Catalonia), which was Companys’s party, is now headed by university lecturer Oriol Junqueras, Puigdemont’s jailed deputy. His right-left coalition, “Together for Yes” (JxSi) holds 62 seats in the 135-seat assembly since 2015 elections, and has a narrow majority with the ten seats of the far-left CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy). Puigdemont says that apart from achieving independence, he has no interest in national politics.
Catalonia has prospered since the death of Franco in 1975 and for all the talk of paying far more in taxes than they get back, it is hardly appropriate for socialists to complain that the rich should be shelling out disproportionately to help the poor, whether as individuals or as regions. After the 2008 recession, the central government bailed out Barcelona’s banking industry, which now threatens to abandon Catalonia. It helped to finance the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. It is said that Catalonia still owes the central government 52 billion euro on which it might default if it secedes.
Financial matters have been more amenable to resolution than entrenched cultural and historical national sentiments. ETA in the Basque country killed more than 800 people in four decades of terrorism yet never dared to demand full independence. ETA was so loathed by everyone else, it was even suspected at first of perpetrating the Madrid train bombings. Yet ETA disarmed last year after Madrid offered the two million Basques fiscal autonomy. Madrid has consistently refused to offer Catalonia the same deal, and it may not be enough now to quell secessionist passions.
“Republic” is the key word. Many Catalans, even those who dissociate themselves from the secessionists, yearn for a republic and loathe monarchy. “It is tainted,” Marie Soares, a thirtyish bookseller on Barcelona’s Gran Via les Corts Catalanes told me. “King Juan Carlos was appointed by Franco. He was never elected by the people.” The sentiment was consistently echoed by others. The word “republic” resonates from civil war days even more than the word ‘independence.” It was the great and noble lost cause. But such idolization of the past prompted Ander Gil of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), which awarded expanded autonomy to Catalonia in the first place, to lash out at the delusions of the independistas on the eve of their declaration. “Puigdemont is not Bolivar, Junqueras is not Che Guevara. Neither are they fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream of freedom. This is no dream, but a nightmare.”
THE NIGHTMARE may now be commencing, though many on both sides seem to enjoy the passions that a sense of patriotism evokes. Tens of thousands cheered in Barcelona an hour after the declaration of independence, but two days later the city center was a sea of Catalonian and Spanish flags as hundreds of thousands of unionists took to the streets, and many danced, shouted “Puigdemont to jail” and sported the number “155” on their backs. The kiosk of Jose Maria Sanz Locente, a thin, intense, sun-bronzed teacher of Catalan who lived through Franco’s regime, broadcast an anti-independence message from his Societat Civil booth near Catalunya Square, covered with the red-striped senyera flag on a yellow background. “We are both Catalans and Spanish. There is no contradiction.” His flyer was solely directed at the likely economic consequences of secession, especially for old people. “Separatist plans represent a threat for the right of all Catalans, especially our pensioners.”
“I have always been for independence, even as a boy,” Alberto Morales, a casually dressed young cameraman for Catalan TV3, told me outside the local Parliament in a corner of the lovely Parc de la Cuitadella, as he waited for some barricaded MPs to emerge. “I couldn’t be other. My father was in the anti-Franco resistance and I cannot support an unelected monarchy, appointed by Franco.” It was as though a vote for Rajoy was a vote for monarchy and a vote for monarchy was a vote for Franco. It is no surprise that the Popular Party which governs Spain won only eight percent of the vote in the last Catalonian elections.
Alberto bolstered his stand by remarking, as many others have, that the Spanish “do not love us.”
“In Spain [outside Catalonia] we are strangers. I went there with my girlfriend. We sat in a restaurant speaking Catalan and after a waiter took our order in Spanish he turned on us. Why do you speak Catalan in Spain? Is this not your country?”
Economics is only an accessory to the other grievances. “We used to be the richest region. Now we are seventh out of seventeen because we give 60 billion euro more than we receive back,” he said, a huge figure, even given that Catalonia’s GDP at 215 billion euro is almost 20 percent of Spain’s (1.23 trillion). According to data from the Spanish treasury, the tax deficit is more like 10 billion euro, while Andalusia, the poorest region, receives 8 billion euro more than it pays in, according to Reuters. Nearby, a reporter for Spanish TV in a slick dark suit let me know that the truth was precisely the reverse of what I had heard. It was Catalans who hated Spain, “it is they who want to separate.” Yes, they paid out more than they received, but they owed their wealth partly to Madrid’s subsidies. That finance is not the main issue is suggested by the fact that more than a thousand companies are ready to relocate out of Catalonia and secessionism has grown louder since recession racked the country in 2010.
In Barcelona University’s mathematics department, students had no head for tax returns. It was all about the king. “I am not sure about independence but I do want a republic,” said Elena Sanchez, a second year major. She was distressed that in her own department hard-liners on both sides won’t talk to each other, though mathematicians are generally not as passionate about politics as social scientists. Sophie Miguel, a geography student, felt torn between two loyalties because her parents came from Salamanca and Galicia, a region with national claims of its own. Close to half the population and perhaps a majority resent being forced to choose between loyalty to Spain or to Catalonia.
In Girona, I heard the same republican-versus-monarchy trope in more detail. “The father-in-law of Alfredo Ruiz-Galardon, the ex-justice minister, was a falange,” Aaron Sanchez, (Sanchez is a common name), a bookshop clerk in his 20s told me. “Felipe [the king] made things worse with the anti-Catalan speech that the Popular Party wrote for him.”
I was curious about the origin of Aaron’s name after he expressed hope of Israel’s support and he told me his father had Jewish ancestors way back. His family had lived for generations in Granada, site of the last great expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. He was in effect, he said, a marrano, though he no longer had to hide his Jewish past, which is why his father had bestowed on him his priestly name. The Inquisition was long dead. Religion, come to think of it, never entered any conversation. Though Spain is considered to be 68% Catholic and some 28% non-religious, the reverse might be truer in Catalonia. In recent years, there were many Jewish immigrants from Argentina and they naturally preferred Barcelona to Madrid. Nobody raised banners of saints or attacked nuns, which certainly distinguished the current crisis from the civil war where religious differences inflamed ideological fury.
“I believe in the nation, but not in nationalism,” seemed to be the general tone. Catalonian nationalism is indeed more about being European and not Spanish. It is enough to say “I am a republican” and to speak Catalan to be accepted as a Catalan. Half the population can trace their origins to poorer regions, attracted by its prosperity in recent years. Many have come from outside Spain, bringing its population to 7.5 million in a fertile land nearly twice the size of pre-1967 Israel. There is no serious anti-immigration movement. Pakistani grocers can become just as Catalan as Andalusian migrants, I was told. Catalonian patriotism is more about belief in the country’s future, not its past, Junqueras told The New York Times. Ethnicity is irrelevant. “I,” said Aaron, “am a Catalan – born in Granada.”
I contacted Atid, the Barcelona-based Jewish association of Catalonia, but the secretary politely let me know that the organization does not divulge “private information” about members of the Jewish community “who have given us their trust.” Nor does it meddle in politics. “The community remains outside of any political action in this regard.” The marrano mentality lives.
The World Jewish Congress says there are 4.500 Jews in Madrid and 3,500 in Barcelona. Hundreds more are scattered around Spain. New synagogues have recently been built in both cities. The expulsion order of 1492 was repealed by Franco in 1968 and again symbolically by King Juan Carlos in 1992. Spain also took in several thousand refugees from Nazi Europe.
Language defines Catalans more than anything else, including republicanism. whichever side they are on. All young people learn it at school, along with reduced hours of Spanish. It is seen by Castilians, like the waiter mentioned above, to be an overtly political act, much like the ban on bullfighting that the Spanish constitutional court provocatively overturned last year as a violation of a “common cultural heritage.” The ruling has been ignored. The Placa de Toros Monumental remains closed.
CATALAN WRITERS acknowledge that their language is short on idioms and proverbs that make a language live, but it is growing as political passions grow. Hebrew, of course, went through a similar politically impelled development, but also possessed the immense advantage of the Hebrew Bible from which to rebuild a modern ancient language. Catalan has good literature, but no Cervantes, and Spain makes the most of that. I cannot help but think that when Puigdemont in happier days visited Madrid early last year, Rajoy wished to convey a dual message when he presented him with a facsimile of a first edition chapter from Don Quixote about the knight errant’s visit to Barcelona.
Madrid is now in charge in Catalonia, but not Barcelona. Its left-wing radically republican mayor Ada Colau removed a bust of King Juan Carlos from city hall and changed the name of an important intersection in his name, but wisely condemns both sides.
The question is: Will Brussels stand with Spain and honor Madrid’s request to extradite Puigdemont? Will Puigdemont thereby transform his cause into Europe’s and himself into a vote-gathering martyr as he appeals his extradition? If he loses on December 21, is it all over? If he wins, will Rajoy recognize an independent Catalonia? Will the coming month see the street descend into violence?
Which brings us to the gory origin of Catalonia’s flag and Wilfred the Hairy, the designated founder of the first independent Catalonia and the first count of Barcelona who bequeathed his title to his son. The legend says that the Frankish King Charles the Bald slid his hand into Wilfrid’s gaping wound and smeared four bloodied fingers on Wilfred’s golden shield, thus creating the senyera flag that is now so well known; a hoary fable, no doubt, like other national myths, but it evokes blood-red passion and Wilfrid himself existed. Independistas have updated the senyera by incorporating the triangle and star of the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags, to create the estelada, which recalls two Catalan exile-supported Caribbean struggles for independence from the Spanish monarchy, which, in 1874, naturally supplanted a shortlived moderate Spanish republic in a military coup.
On the sidelines of this crisis, little attention has been paid to the fate of Europe’s leading soccer club, if Puigdemont carries it off. Barcelona’s coach Ernesto Valveide, between a rock and a hard place, has been tight-lipped, but Real Madrid’s French coach Zinedine Zidane was gob-smacked. “I can’t imagine La Liga without Barcelona,” he said. As the standoff between the two sides continues at what may be no more than halftime, it remains to be seen which side, Madrid or Barcelona, will finally concede.